Michelle Henry, 31, teaches math at Witter Elementary in Tampa, where 93 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. She knows what people say about students who don't do well in school. It's their home life. It's their parents.
She says it's their teachers.
"I don't look at their deficits or what any student comes without," she said. "Your job is still to teach them. You're going to have to find another way."
Henry's attitude was honored Monday by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Looking at student progress on the FCAT, Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education named 81 teachers the "greatest" in Florida this year, including Henry and eight others from the bay area.
Trying to rate teacher quality is slippery enough without putting the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or the hard-charging former governor in the mix. But several teacher quality experts say the foundation is getting a better grip on doing it right.
Last year, it listed the state's top teachers based on one year's FCAT data — and was roundly criticized. Education researchers said the results were too likely to fluctuate from year to year, because of factors beyond a teacher's control, to draw strong conclusions.
So this year, the foundation partnered with the American Institutes of Research to analyze three years' worth of scores.
Better, but not perfect, said Dan Goldhaber, a teacher quality expert at the University of Washington. "They can probably be confident that these teachers are a lot better than the teachers at the bottom of the distribution," he said. "But just below the cutoff of (81) is going to be a lot of teachers who are probably not different from these teachers."
The foundation based its results on the gains students made from year to year, not final scores. On average, the students taught by the top teachers learned 50 percent more than typical students.
Some of the honorees bristled at the notion that they were just better at "teaching to the test."
"I have always taught this way — before the FCAT, after the FCAT," said Karen Henderson, a 36-year veteran at Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin. "I have always taught critical thinking skills."
Henry, the Tampa teacher, said she frequently visits parents at their home or workplace if they can't meet her at school. It makes a difference, she said, when "the parents can see that you care."
Like last year, a lot of teachers were left out of the foundation's calculation. The analysis excluded teachers in grades K, 1, 2, 11 or 12, because the FCAT is not given in those grades. It excluded teachers in third grade, because fourth grade is the first year in which growth can be measured. It excluded the FCATs in writing and science, because those tests are not given to consecutive grades. And it excluded teachers who did not teach all three years.
In total, about 22,000 teachers were considered — a fraction of the 170,000 or so statewide.
The top teachers will be honored in Orlando on Saturday. They'll also be rewarded with cash — the amount will be a surprise — and a cruise.
"It's kind of cool," said Daniel Couillard, an English teacher at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School. But he said motivated students and a supportive administration also deserved a hand.
"I do try really hard," said Couillard, 39. "But it's hard to take more credit than credit's due."